Lopez Islander Helen Sanders, with the Keith Highlanders Pipe Band of Seattle, finished third in the grade 4B category at the World Pipe Band Championships in Scotland.
They were the highest-placing United States band among all competing bands for 2008. The competition was held Saturday, Aug. 16, in Glasgow, Scotland on Glasgow Green.
The Keith Highlanders take their clan affiliation from the Clan Keith, from the Aberdeen area of Scotland. The Keith Highlanders received permission from the 10th Earl of Kintore, Chief of Clan Keith, to wear the clan’s tartan in 1952. The Keith Highlanders Pipe Band was recognized as the official band of the Clan Keith in 1977.
The Scottish Highland Bagpipe consists of two tenor drones, a bass drone, and a chanter, which is fitted with a double reed made from Spanish cane. The chanter provides the melodic line and the drones, which are tied into a hide bag and are sounded continuously by the the player’s air stream.
Popular, recognizable tunes in the Keith Highlanders repertoire include “Amazing Grace,” “Bonnie Dundee,” “Scotland the Brave” and “Highland Laddie.”
Sanders plays classical piping on piobaireachd (pronounced peebroch).
She picked up piping when she was 35 and an employee at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. She was coming back from a jog at Marymoor Park and heard pipes being played on Microsoft’s campus. She says, “I found the sounds … it was, literally, two men in the bushes and I asked one of them to teach me, a 20-year-old from Canada named Phil Ferguson, and he said yes.
“I have found overall that other established pipers are more than willing to help a beginning piper, so there’s always help available if you just reach out and ask for it.”
Unlike her original teacher, Sanders practices every Wednesday evening at St. Thomas Moore Church in Medina, a suburb of Bellevue in Washington.
When asked if there are tricks to successfully playing the pipes, Helen says, “Extreme stubbornness and the ability to stop yourself from heaving the whole set against the wall when you get angry with the pipes.”
“Good arm strength and strong abdominal muscles are essential to ‘picking up the pipes.’”
Helen commutes to Seattle every week to rehearse on Wednesdays. She is also the manager of the band, making arrangements for rehearsals, scheduling and planning tour accommodations.
Helen competes solo and with the band, which has a schedule of performing in local highland games stretching from BC, Canada, down to Pleasanton, Calif., with Mt. Vernon Highland Games, Bellingham Highland Games, Enumclaw Highland Games, and the Portland Highland Games in between.
The Keith Highlander Pipe Band currently goes to Scotland every two years. “We will be, hopefully, traveling to Scotland in the year 2010 to compete once again at the World Pipe Band Championships.”
The band currently competes in civilian dress, which includes a short sleeved white shirt, the Keith kilt, a sporran, glengarry (hat), ghillie brogues (shoes), hose, and flashes (to keep the hose up). They also wear a tie and in many competitions and performances, an Argyle jacket. Many of the longer-lasting Keith members have full military regalia, which is “extremely expensive as well as incredibly heavy to wear,” Sanders says. “I’ve performed at reenactment ceremonies at the English Camp on Friday Harbor and remember only too well the weight of the tartan (which loops under the arm and falls all the way down to the heel), the horsehair sporran, and the enormous bearskin hat. It was heavy!”
Sanders started the San Juan Highlanders Pipe Band three years ago, and the group is now five strong. She teaches them how to play throughout the year, in preparation for marching in the Fourth of July parade on Lopez for the last three years.